Australia’s Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has no procedures in place to accurately track the number of people who claim asylum at airports, according to information received under Freedom of Information Act (FOI).

‘The total number of persons raising protection claims at Australia’s borders remains undetermined,’ the department said in an internal review of its response to an FOI request for this data.  

As reported in The Guardian, the response raises serious questions regarding the quality and integrity of the DHA data on protection claims made at Australian airports, at time when officials are placing heavy emphasis on ever-better intelligence capabilities and data-driven decision-making in border management. 

It also raises concerns about the operation of Australia’s onshore humanitarian protection system. Australia’s immigration legal framework relies upon visas as the only way that a non-citizen may lawfully travel to Australia. People coming to study, work, or visit require a visa and must pass through ‘immigration clearance’ before being allowed to enter Australia. ‘Immigration clearance’ is the physical zone that every passenger must pass through before being allowed to enter Australia.

The physical zone is important: The FOI request was seeking data about the number of protection claims made before, or while in, immigration clearance at an airport. Travellers who arrive at an Australian airport from abroad and seek protection there are subjected to a process called ‘entry screening’, through which their reasons for entry are examined and which may result in visa cancellation and immediate removal from Australia. 

There has been little scrutiny of the way entry screening operates in Australia’s onshore humanitarian protection program for travellers arriving by air – that is, asylum seekers coming by plane, often with valid visas. The onshore protection visa framework implements Australia’s international obligations under the Refugee Convention – including the obligation not to return an individual to a place where they fear persecution or other serious harm. Yet, immigration clearance and the entry screening process may operate in a manner that runs afoul of that obligation. 

The lack of attention to the entry screening process has been due, at least in part, to reports of smaller numbers of people who arrive on temporary visas and subsequently seek Australia’s protection at airports. These numbers have been provided in official DHA reports and at Senate Estimates.  

Yet, the recent DHA Decision on Internal Review evaluating the Department’s decision in an earlier FOI request raises serious questions regarding the quality and integrity of the DHA data on protection claims made at Australian airports. The scope of the original FOI request was as follows: 

1. The number of individuals who have made protection claims before, or at, immigration clearance at airports since 2008, broken down by fiscal year.

2. The number of those individuals granted protection visas since 2008, broken down by fiscal year.

Please include the individual's country of origin and airport where the claim was made.

On internal review, DHA confirmed that no document with this information exists because –

despite DHA’s insistence that policy decisions are driven by improved intelligence capabilities – poor data-collection procedures prevented the agency from providing the requested information. 

Recent scrutiny into asylum-seekers arriving by air has focussed on lower rates of approval for onshore protection applications, as well as large backlogs in protection visa processing for individuals who pass through immigration clearance and later claim asylum. 

However, the vital question is not how many people have lodged onshore protection applications. Another, potentially more important story to investigate is why DHA does not have in place adequate procedures to determine the number of people who have requested protection at Australia’s borders, or an operational framework that ensures the fair and expeditious processing of legitimate protection claims.

Agency practices which prevent (or hinder) accurate data collection and entry, including a lack of transparency around procedures, call into doubt whether DHA policy actually reflects a response to conditions on the ground.